CAM's New Director Is Setting His Priorities

I was hoping that during my first interview with Cameron Kitchin, Cincinnati Art Museum’s new director, he would floor me with his big, ambitious plans. You know, something exciting — something visionary, something contemporary.

Sep 24, 2014 at 8:28 am
click to enlarge Cameron Kitchin
Cameron Kitchin

Not that I was expecting it, but I was hoping that during my first interview with Cameron Kitchin, Cincinnati Art Museum’s new director, he would floor me with his big, ambitious plans.

Maybe an announcement that the time was right to revive departed director Aaron Betsky’s plan to have Dutch firm Neutelings Riedijk build a breathtaking new addition for the 21st century. Or he’d reveal some big traveling shows — blockbusters — coming here.

You know, something exciting — something visionary, something contemporary.

Maybe, by the time his tenure is over (and that could be decades from now, who knows?) such sweeping ideas will be accomplished. But in this interview, held in the art museum’s glass-walled conference room (itself nicely contemporary), the talk about the future was fairly cautious. Optimistic, yes, and positive, but also carefully business-like.

Kitchin, 45, who is coming from Memphis, Tenn.’s Brooks Museum, where he has been director since 2008, has been doing his homework. He seemed well prepared on all the details and already was referring to the art museum as “we” and “us” in his conversation. He’s taken ownership, even though he doesn’t officially assume leadership until Oct. 1.

He will also be the first Louis and Louise Nippert Director of the Cincinnati Art Museum — the Louise Dieterle Nippert Trust has created an endowment of more than $6 million for the position. It’s one of the museum’s largest gifts ever.

He thinks highly of the museum’s collection and reputation, and is proud that the endowment is growing — it’s up to $92 million (at the end of July) from $86 million at 2013’s end.

He said he looks forward to talking about as-yet-unannounced new shows for the 2015-16 season and beyond. Meanwhile, his philosophy about changing exhibitions sounded similar to Betsky’s — and, probably, to his Board of Trustees.’

“I think we can create blockbusters — it doesn’t have to come from elsewhere,” he said. “We have material here to springboard [to] the blockbuster level by borrowing to explore key objects within our own collection. We have the ability to do that.”

“I would never advocate for the museum’s financial or programmatic stability to be built on a pyramid — that success is predicated on the Next Big One,” he said. “We need to be more stable. If we were an investor, we would say the strategy calls for diversification. We do a balance of exhibitions that provide different scales and different expense profiles that all fit together and allow us on occasion to do those large-scale blockbuster-type exhibitions, while mitigating the risks.”

When asked what Memphis shows under his leadership he might consider a “blockbuster” for a museum of that smaller size, he mentioned the current Marisol: Sculptures and Works on Paper and the past Venice in the Age of Canaletto, both of which were mounted as partnerships with other institutions to share costs and curatorial workload.

His first order of business here is to oversee the ongoing Betsky-initiated interior renovations of the existing building. The key elements of this Vision Master Plan are the upcoming 2,300-square-foot Rosenthal Education Center and the revamping of some first-floor galleries, including a Cincinnati Wing expansion.

One component has been delayed, however. The board recently suspended work on the new Western & Southern changing exhibition gallery slated for the DeWitt Building’s lower level. The board instead assigned the “Western & Southern” name to the 10,000-square-foot second-floor space where the open-storage exhibit 6,000 Years of Art had been. That opens Oct. 31 with the Tom Wesselmann retrospective, Beyond Pop Art. That space had been used for bigger changing exhibits before the installation of the problematic 6,000 Years in 2011.

Next will come infrastructure work. “Then we begin to look at the ways the collection is not being used to best effect, and we will build a facilities plan around that,” Kitchin said.

That includes addressing how the museum, in its current location in Eden Park, is connected to or disconnected from the greater city. “There’s the actual geographic connection, there’s a partnership connection in terms of having spaces to carry out joint programs, and there’s a psychological connection in terms of what you see when you view the building,” he said.

So does this mean the notion of a major new addition — or an entire new building — is not dead?

“In an art museum those ideas are never dead,” he said. “But we need to ask the question of whether we are doing everything we can to leverage this collection and the strength of the arts community here. I don’t know the answer until we ask those questions.”

In a coming article, Kitchin will discuss his thoughts about CAM ramping up its collecting and exhibiting of Contemporary art.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]